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Polar Vortex Behind U.S. Big Chill Explained

Posted By Barry Ritholtz On January 19, 2014 @ 6:00 pm In Science,UnScience,Weekend | Comments Disabled

The chilling weather phenomenon that hit much of the U.S. in January is explained by scientist Eric Fetzer using data from NASA’s AIRS instrument. To see a data only version, watch at: http://youtu.be/PCtDB0zOcO4

This movie of temperature observations from NASA’s Atmospheric Infrared Sounder (AIRS) instrument on NASA’s Aqua spacecraft depicts the first major North American weather event of 2014: cold air moving out of the Arctic and south to cover much of the continent. The temperatures shown are at a pressure of 850 hectopascals (hPa, formerly knows as millibars; sea level pressure is normally around 1000 hPa). Pressures of 850 hPa correspond to an altitude of about 3,000 feet (1 kilometer) above sea level. The temperatures in the movie range from about minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit (245 Kelvin or minus 28 degrees Celsius) to warmer than 66 degrees Fahrenheit (290 Kelvin or about 17 degrees Celsius). The very coldest temperatures in purples and blues are minus 18 to 17 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 28 to about minus 8 degrees Celsius).

The most obvious feature of the movie is the tongue of cold air moving out of Canada and southward to cover much of the eastern United States during early January 2014. This event was covered extensively in the media, and introduced the term ‘polar vortex’ to a broader audience.

This global perspective illustrates some features not noted in all the recent media attention. Perhaps most obvious: this is not a global phenomenon. The eastern half of the United States includes only about one percent of the total surface area of the planet (about two million of 197 million square miles). One advantage of satellite observations, as from AIRS, is coverage of the entire planet. A truly global perspective is required when studying variations in climate, and this event must be compared against a number of other phenomena occurring around the planet. Note that Alaska and northern Eurasia were warm during this period of unusual cold over the eastern United States.

About AIRS

The Atmospheric Infrared Sounder, AIRS, in conjunction with the Advanced Microwave Sounding Unit, AMSU, sense emitted infrared and microwave radiation from the Earth to provide a three-dimensional look at Earth’s weather and climate. Working in tandem, the two instruments make simultaneous observations all the way down to the Earth’s surface, even in the presence of heavy clouds. With more than 2,000 channels sensing different regions of the atmosphere, the system creates a global, three-dimensional map of atmospheric temperature and humidity, cloud amounts and heights, greenhouse gas concentrations, and many other atmospheric phenomena. The AIRS and AMSU fly onboard NASA’s Aqua spacecraft and are managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, under contract to NASA. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

More information about AIRS can be found at airs.jpl.nasa.gov.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL


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